Ransacking the Republic

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck

The Watergate scandal left many Americans wondering if they could ever trust their government again. In October 1978, hoping to restore public confidence in federal institutions, Congress created new mechanisms for oversight and new agencies to administer them, including the Office of Government Ethics, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. It further established a cadre of inspectors general at large federal agencies. Public servants like me who have worked in these agencies or inspector general offices think of 1978 as the 1776 of our anticorruption work.

Jimmy Carter, who signed the Inspector General Act into law, saw the new inspectors general as a tool to “root out fraud and abuse.” As his chief domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat later put it, “For him, Watergate was not simply the break-in and the cover-up. It was the abuse of power, the misuse of the IRS and the CIA against domestic enemies.”

If Donald Trump’s goal is to abuse power, he may have special cause to fear the seventy-four inspector general offices. They investigate wrongdoing and audit the performance of federal agencies and government programs to detect problems or identify systemic risks that could harm the public. They are supposed to be nonpartisan and independent; as a line of defense against the various forms of corruption that can infect government agencies, they have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. But that tradition is being tested as Trump seeks to gain control over these watchdogs.

On April 3, he announced his intention to fire Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community. Last September Atkinson complied with a legal duty to notify Congress of the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. A law intended to buy Congress time to defend inspectors general mandated a thirty-day hold on Atkinson’s firing, but Republican senators expressed only mild unease at the threatened dismissal. (It became final on May 3.)

During an April 6 briefing on the coronavirus, Trump attacked Christi Grimm, acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), because her report on supply shortages in hospitals during the pandemic embarrassed him. Having left the inspector general post vacant for nearly a year, he rather promptly selected Jason Weida, an assistant US attorney in Boston, to replace her. What little public information there is on Weida’s career suggests that he has not led an office before, which could be a problem since the HHS inspector general leads a 1,600-person office that monitors the response to the pandemic; more than $1 trillion in annual federal expenditures; and, under the Food and Drug Administration, which is part of the department, the government’s regulation of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, medicated animal feed, and other products that together account for twenty cents on every dollar spent by…

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